Abstract: The Current Cultural Re-awakening and Its Impact on the Bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka

by Venerable Kirama Wimalajothi Thera

With the colonial domination of Sri Lanka from the 16th century by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, foundations of our Buddhist civilization, culture and social values were destroyed. Sri Lanka was known as the ‘fountainhead of Buddhism’ for centuries due to the fact that it was in Sri Lanka that the Buddha’s dispensation was nurtured and protected by Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis from the 3rd century B.C. to the 11th century A.C., the Tripitaka was written down in the 1st century B.C. and it was from Sri Lanka that Buddhism was spread to South and South-east Asia. Even after Independence in 1948, our political leaders made little effort to bring back our cultural heritage to the fore. The Buddhist values which are at the core of this heritage had declined.

According to the Buddha, the stability and the continuation of Buddhism depend on the catuparisa, the four components of a Buddhist society: Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni, Upsaka and Upasika. Opposition to the revival of a Bhikkhuni Ordination runs counter to the spirit as well as the religious aims of Buddhism which strongly advocated the emancipation of women. In this context, Bhikkhuni Ordination should have been established decades ago. The nuns, once trained in Dhamma Vinaya and given guidance, could well be a rich resource in bringing back the values that are fast eroding in our society. They could also fill a void, especially in the rural areas. Today, the Bhikkhus are a vanishing breed with around 2,000 temples being closed down due to the lack of Bhikkhus. Even the existing Bhikkhus prefer to excel in secular education, rather than in the Dhamma Vinaya.

Currently, there is a re-awakening in social and cultural matters in Sri Lanka which will soon have a positive impact on the Bhikkhuni Ordination in Sri Lanka.  A delegation from the Department of the Buddhasasana at the request of the Executive President of Sri Lanka had a consultation with me and I gathered that the President is very keen to make a lasting contribution in the religious and cultural sphere by bringing about a positive change among the Bhikkhus as well as the Bhikkhunis.

I would focus here only on the Bhikkhunis. The first higher ordination was conducted on Sri Lankan soil in 1998 at the 2,200-year old Rangiri Dambulu Temple, which was up to then used exclusively by Buddhist monks. This dual ordination ceremony was conducted, at the initiative of the Venerable Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera who had been training Samaneris at the Bhikkhuni Educational Academy set up by him. The Bhikkhunis ordained in Bodh Gaya under the sponsorship of the Fo Guan Shan Monastery conferred  higher ordination on twenty two Samaneris. Since then, several teams of Samaneris have been given higher ordination by the Venerable Inamaluwe Sumangala Thera. Another Bhikkhuni Training Centre attached to the Newgala hermitage in Galigamuwa in the Kegalla district, had been established under the guidance of a senior Bhikkhu there. I also set up a Bhikkhuni Training Centre in 2001 in Dekanduwala in the Kalutara district. There are 16 resident Bhikkhunis at this centre, and several foreign female renunciants have registered their interest in receiving higher ordination there.  
It is significant that the higher ordination ceremony conducted on Sri Lankan soil in 1998
did not attract any negative reactions from the Supreme Patriarchs, despite the high publicity given to the event in the media. In fact, there has been no criticism on the restoration of the Bhikkhuni Order for nearly ten years now. Supreme Patriarchs have also turned a blind eye at the ecclesiastical acts performed by the Bhikkhunis such as fortnightly Patimokkha recitation (discussion on any violation of these rules among the Bhikkhunis) at their own sima malakas (a hall with a demarcated boundary, especially constructed for performing ecclesiastical acts), and at religious ceremonies such as all night paritta ceremony (chanting blessings for protection) in specially constructed pavilions, and officiating at funeral ceremonies, perhaps the most important of the religious functions of the sangha.

It is also most encouraging to observe that the relationship between Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis has been very cordial, especially outside the main cities and in villages. Bhikkhus increasingly invite Bhikkhunis to their temples to conduct sermons and meditation sessions and Bhikkhunis, because of their sheer competence and empathy with their audience, are becoming increasingly popular in the communities. With increased spiritual status as Bhikkhunis, they now have more social recognition.

At present, there are about 500 Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka scattered around, and there is an urgent need to provide institutional facilities in order to put them in a firm footing. It is natural that the Bhikkhunis face different kinds of obstacles depending on the social and cultural context that they reside in. The Bhikkhuni Order being a young institution will have to discuss and resolve these issues if the Bhikkhunis are to make a real change in society. Thus, a Bhikkhuni Headquarters where they gather and discuss their problems is perhaps the most urgent. Secondly, there should be training centres at district level where the selected Bhikkhunis are given additional training in Dhamma Vinaya, meditation, and social work including counseling. Bhikkhunis and ten precept renunciants (there are around 5,000) should be provided with Dhamma Vinaya education free of charge like the monks. It goes without saying that the support of the government is required to put these measures in place.

There are signs that the government support is forth coming. Thus, it is not too long in the future that the Bhikkhuni Order would be officially accepted.